“Be yourself” is not bad advice. It is great. Despite the number of times I have rolled my eyes upon hearing people overuse it, there are many situations where I blank out and the best piece of wisdom I could tell myself (or others) is “just be yourself”.
Being yourself means to let go of any preconceived notions of the person you think you have to be and to exist in your most natural state. The problem of the advice, however, lies not in the problem itself but in its delivery: the ambiguity.
In my experience, two major complications lie with the advice: “be yourself”.
The first problem is that sometimes people whom give this advice do so to fulfill a basic psychological need for familiarity. We as human beings do not enjoy seeing people close to us change because we find comfort in familiarity. Therefore, “be yourself” advice can often imply “act as you do with me and don’t change for my sake”.
The second problem is that we, as a species, are but a culmination of nature and nurture. Self is an illusion; consciousness is subjective. Environmental factors, including experience and social conditioning, assemble all our perceptions of reality.
Some types of experiences (for example: certain social expectations) can be more destructive and shallow than others. So when you tell someone to “be themselves”, exactly which layers of experiences are you telling them to peel back?
What are some other advice less vague than telling someone to be “just themselves”? Here are four:
- Be the Best Version of You
Let’s use an example. Suppose you have a friend whom spends all of his time playing video games, eating junk food, and smoking weed on the couch. Say your friend is depressed at his lack of dating success and he desires a better social life.
Would you not be irresponsible and lazy to tell your friend “just be yourself” when he seriously asks you for advice? What he wants is for you to help him be a better version of himself.
Have a conversation with him about the things that truly bring him intrinsic happiness. So he loves his video games. Can you go deeper with that? Perhaps in his virtual realities, your friend feels a sense of significance gained through the competition and the adventure.
What other hobbies can you help your friend find that a) brings a similar sense of significance and b) is a vehicle for self-improvement and social activity; e.g., sports, art, film, etc. Your friend does not need to give up video games entirely, but being the best version of him will require his dedication to a new journey.
- Pay Less Heed to What Others Think; LESS But Not None
I had an awkward college roommate whom watched an inspiring video on self-improvement that emphasized the theme: the secret to success is to not give a fuck about what other people think. Vigor renewed, he lived by first impulse. “Hey girl, nice ***s!”
This went on until he drove a girl to Vegas, left her there because she wouldn’t sleep with him, and then came crying to me for help because daddy turned out to be a big shot Moroccan oil baron and older brother was a rumored hot head. She had my address. Took everything not to slap the s*** out of him.
The point is: caring about what other people think is, to some degree, practical, ethical, healthy, and an essential tenant to any civilized society.
That being said: there has been a peculiar psychological experiment done using lab monkeys. Five monkeys were placed in a room with a ladder. On top of the ladder was a bunch of bananas. Every time a monkey would ascend the ladder, a sprinkler would spray the whole room.
Eventually, the monkeys would beat anyone that attempted the climb. Scientists eventually turned off the sprinkler and started replacing the monkeys one by one with a new monkey. Even when no original monkey remained in the room, the present group would punish any dissenter whom attempted to make the climb.
Are we humans that much better? Can you think of examples where society acts in parallel with these monkeys? In my observation, the unhappiest and the most insecure of people will be the most judgmental and the most vocal about conformity.
Thus, tell your friends to not let the judgments of others bring them pain and insecurity. Insecurity inspires ego, drains confidence, and encourages blind social conformity; all factors that limit us in our journey to self-discovery and actualization.
- Evolve With Your Values
When I attended college, I stubbornly held on to the promise I made to myself before college that I would not touch drugs- including marijuana. With the exception of a friend tricking me into eating a weed brownie, I stuck to my promise all throughout college.
Good did come out of it. I strengthened my neurological pathways for self-control, I was given opportunity to conquer depression without the option of escaping reality, and I earned the respect of many people- including, I kid you not, drug dealers.
I have had both dealers and hardcore stoners tell me in private that they admired my resolve and they respected me far more than the kids, whom obviously never smoked weed in high school, that changed so hard to fit in.
Avoid making massive changes in order to fit in with social norms and expectations. When you force yourself into a character that is inorganic, it is the perfect formula for collecting layers upon layers of insecurity.
True change comes from the inside- reevaluating and thinking critically about your values. Keep a constant internal dialogue about your beliefs and how they affect you. When you work on changing your values first, the appropriate thoughts and behaviors will follow and naturally fall into place.
Since college, my values have evolved from mindless determination to growth mindset. With the overwhelming scientific evidence that marijuana does no harm, who knows what the future may hold when I’m with the right group of people? (I decide that; nothing personal)
- Unless You Walk the Walk, Don’t Talk that Talk
Being fake –even when we do so without ill intention– triggers some of the most revolting feelings from others. We all have this ideal person whom we want to be. However, if you don’t walk the walk yet, forcing that image upon others invites in ridicule and outrage.
Act like Mother Teresa when you a Kardashian and you might as well be Hitler when the public finds out. This scenario occurred with one of my favorite athletes of all time: UFC Champion Jon Bones Jones.
When he won the title, Jones put on this act to the media that he was this humble Christian philanthropist that could do no wrong. He was a party animal, did cocaine, drove drunk, and his best efforts could not hide his ego. Jones is, by far, not a bad person and he does genuinely have altruistic capacities, respect for others, and good intentions.
He is not nearly, by a hundred miles, on the same level as a Michael Vick or a Ray Rice. However, when Jones’ true self began to leak into the media, a pubic relations backlash ensued on such epic proportion that you would have thought Jones had drowned a sack of sick puppies and murdered a small village.
Leave acting for the actors. When in doubt, just keep things simple, real, and honest. Remember, society will embrace a hard felon before they forgive a petty wolf in sheep’s skin.